Letter to Editor: NextStep 190 Code Revision Does Not Protect Residential Neighborhoods

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The County’s NextStep 190 Code Revision process has been going on for months. The current revision has been vetted by the Planning Office, the County attorneys, the Planning Commission, and is expected to go to the County Council soon for a vote. Many people have contributed time and recommendations to the process, including those from several neighborhoods with or threatened with short-term vacation rentals (STRs). A growing number of people advocating for reasonable limitations on STRs has been increasingly vocal about the problems these unsupervised “mini-hotels” bring to neighborhoods, the most basic of which is disruption to the peaceful quality of life for the residents who live near them.

Among the suggestions offered by these concerned neighbors are limiting the length and number of STRs, requiring the rental property to be the owner’s primary residence (beneficial to residents), requiring the rental property to be accessible by public and not private roads, and improving County monitoring. The most important and foolproof recommendation is that the County find a way to allow neighborhoods to opt out of STRs, whether by zoning or through neighborhood bylaws and covenants prohibiting such activity.

However, instead of protecting our quality of life by adopting reasonable STR limitations that would help preserve our neighborhoods, the current code revision proposes to continue issuing unlimited STR licenses (including opening the door to “corporations” while insisting that STRs are not commercial businesses!) almost anywhere, anytime. Talbot County considers neighborhood covenants “private agreements,” an absurd cop-out, and is unwilling to change that interpretation or to respect those “agreements.” The County also absolves itself of any responsibility for causing havoc for homeowners in STR-impacted neighborhoods. Mistakenly assuming that a few regulations and a nod to better monitoring will change human behavior, County leaders continue to ignore the basic fact that vacationers and residents have different and conflicting lifestyles.

Fully three-quarters of the STR licenses issued by Talbot County this year went to property owners who are not County residents. Who benefits from these STRs and who doesn’t? Nonresident investors (who do not vote here) get what they want, realtors and property managers make a buck, lawyers get more clients, and the County receives revenue from rental taxes, while our residential neighborhoods get the shaft and commercial hotels and B & Bs get less visitor business. As supposed stewards of the public good, the County Council has been fully involved in this process. Councilmembers Callahan, Pack and Williams have so far failed to offer or support any additions or changes that would protect and strengthen the rights of resident property owners over business, wedding and entertainment interests.

What happened to the “unusually high quality of life” vision for residents in the County’s recently-approved Comprehensive Plan? It’s time to start looking at the new 2018 candidates for County Council. We deserve better leadership.

Donna and Bill Dudley
Holly and Paul Fine
Ashby/Easton, MD

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